Friday, November 14, 2008

Wedding and Wind Scorpions

We are enduring the worst of the hot season right now; it rains so much in Luapula that I would often grow tired of it, but now I am fervently hoping for the rains to begin to break the heat. I've woken up several nights with my sheets soaked through with sweat, and now lie on my side to minimize the surface area I can sweat from. I also have a fan set up as close as I can get it to my bed without risking injury to myself, though if it's hot enough it barely helps as it simply swirls scorching air over me.

I traveled down to Choma district in Southern Province a little over a week ago to see two of my Peace Corps friends get married in a village ceremony. It was a lot of fun and was nice to spend a few days back in a village. The village itself was in a bit of an uproar the whole time we were there; one foreigner is huge entertainment in remote areas, so more than a dozen is tantamount to the circus coming to town and setting up the center ring in your front yard. Plus there were all the preparations for the wedding feast that took a small army of women several days to prepare; I wandered over a few times to stoke my appetite and admire the process of cooking that much food over open fires. Cooking is always a long production in the village, but to prepare that much food in massive cauldrons is truly a feat.

A brief aside: by most measures many villagers are highly uneducated, especially the older generation and women as they are the first to be taken out of school, it's not seen as critical for a girl to be educated like a boy should be, they tend to get married and have children at very young ages, etc. In remote areas it's not uncommon to find people who have lived their entire lives in the same village, without even having been to the nearest town that has proper shops, electricity, tarmacked roads, and things of that nature. So, their life experiences and education are extremely limited; yet, they also are unparalleled experts at what they do. I've sat around watching women cook, for instance, and they have it down to a science and an art--their movements are deft and sure, there's little wasted motion, no pausing to try to remember measurements or times, and they move with purpose and strength (I realize strength isn't commonly associated with cooking, but watch a bamayo stir heavy, thick, gruel-like nshima with a carved wooden spoon and you quickly understand why they could probably cripple me using just their forearms). Or there was the time I was sheltering from a thunderstorm in an office building at a refugee camp. I stood on the porch watching the storm probe the earth with preliminary rains, like liquid skirmishers, gathering itself to unleash a torrential downpour. Then three women with large bundles of firewood--some of the poles were easily five or six feet long--came into view. I stood gaping as they trotted by at a fast clip, eyes fixed straight ahead, chins tilted slightly up, necks straight and rigid, in order to keep the 50 or so pounds of firewood in place on their heads...and each one had a baby fastened with a piece cloth to their backs as they nimbly maneuvered down the muddy road. And it's the same thing with the men as they carve furrows out of the ground for their fields with home-made hoes, or build a charcoal mound or take down a tree with an axe. I always enjoy watching these people who are some of the most deprived in the world and yet who possess world-class skills in their areas of expertise. It's a delight every time.

Back to the wedding: on the first day I was given the chance to slaughter a goat which I gladly took up. I had never killed one though there was not a day in Muyembe when I didn't want to, given that they are evil incarnate (If you want to start most any Volunteer raving, ask them how they feel about goats and you'll probably hear stories about how awful they are and how the Volunteer had plotted to covertly kill a few of them as an example to the rest. I had a friend in Eastern Province who found one in his outdoor kitchen; he wrestled it to the ground and then proceeded to slap it four times in the face before finally letting it up). Now village knives are notoriously dull which leads to painfully slow slaughters and traumatized PCVs, and the bare piece of metal I was handed that was ostensibly a knife was no different, but I started in anyways. The accepted method is to saw away at the goat's neck until the goat dies or you collapse; fortunately the goat died first in my case, though it was nip and tuck. After it was over some of the village men took over the butchering, obviously having concluded from my slaughtering efforts that I wasn't entirely competent in the goat killing/slaughtering arena. We rescued the testicles and fried them up and ate them later; they were marginal at best, and I ate them mostly for bragging rights which, in retrospect, isn't a great reason.

There was, of course, plenty of dancing. Before the wedding started some of the older women started an impromptu session, something I smugly expected to be only for females until a very determined old lady grabbed me. I briefly calculated my odds of being able to beat her off and put them at 50-50, maybe 60-40 in my favor if she was tired from nshima cooking; but, I hadn't embarrassed myself in a few hours so I decided to give in and start dancing, which would be punishment enough for her and the other women anyways. I went into my normal routine which has been, unjustly I think, compared to a slow seizure, like maybe it's happening underwater, and continued my normal routine of convincing myself that all the laughter was merely admiration being expressed. The dancing was mercifully brief by Zambian standards, cut short no doubt by the women's concern that I might need medical attention, and everyone filtered off to prepare for the ceremony.

After changing into my less dirty shirt I settled in to watch the wedding. The groom came out escorted by a parallel line of dancing school girls. He shuffled along and appeared to be limping though he clarified later that he was actually executing a prescribed dance step, and made his way once around a hut. The bride came out of the hut and they were covered with a chitenge, a piece of cloth essentially, locked pinkies, and then shuffle-limped to several chairs that had been set up on the edge of a bare patch of ground. All the villagers, including many from the surrounding areas, formed a solid circle five or six people deep all the way around the chairs and the open area; a very intoxicated man was on crowd control duty which consisted of him flapping his arms and yelling loudly as he rushed around the inner part of the circle and mock charged anyone who threatened its integrity. There was then several brief speeches from the different headmen attending, along with the bride and groom's village parents. Directly following that was a ceremony to exhibit how the bride and groom were prepared to care for their respective in-laws if and when it became necessary. The pair carried a plate of food to a line of people meant to represent their families of which, as a friend of the groom, I was a part. They then moved down the line kneeling before each person and offered them the plate; the person would select something to eat and the bride and groom would move on to the next person. I found the process to be interesting for a couple of reasons; one because I enjoyed the fairly elegant symbolism, but also because it highlighted the cultural reality in Zambia that relatives, even by marriage, are expected to provide for other relatives, including distant ones. It is somewhat common and perfectly normal for children to be raised by grandparents, aunts and uncles, or cousins, even if the child's parents are still alive, and for wealthy relatives to send money for schooling, food, transport, etc., to relatives they've never even met.

Things then rapidly moved into the gift-giving phase; essentially the master of ceremonies stood in the center of the circle and browbeat everyone until they came forward with money or a gift. The m.c. would then hold up whatever the person was offering, announce how much it was or, if it was a gift, offer his best estimate of its worth which was usually wildly inflated. All of this was mortifying to the Americans present, especially the bride and groom who had asked that this part be skipped, but perfectly normal to the assembled Zambians. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the gift-giving had finished, the end of which also marked the end of the ceremony.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing and stuffing ourselves on goat and chicken. We built up a big bonfire and stood around chatting and listening to the general hubbub of the large crowd still socializing and excitedly discussing the day's events. Excitement among the Americans would also occasionally flare up when a wind scorpion would approach. I had heard of these things but had never seen one until that night; in Zambia they are alternatively known as wolf spiders although they are neither a scorpion or a spider. They are big and hairy with large, over-sized jaws that can be a full one-third of their body length, which can reach five inches. While their physical appearance alone qualifies them as something I kill or run away from on sight, the most disconcerting feature of wind scorpions is that they are highly aggressive and target any light source; they lie fairly flat most of the time but when approached or if they sense something nearby worth terrifying (a half-asleep Peace Corps Volunteer walking barefoot to the pit latrine in the middle of the night, for instance) they raise their body off the ground on their hairy legs and sprint straight for their prey. One of my friends in Northwestern Province where wind scorpions are very common told me that the first time he saw one he bolted into his house, leaped onto his bed and wrapped his mosquito net around himself. Another guy, a former college rugby player built like a boulder, was sitting on his porch eating and ended up tossing a full plate of food in the air and jumping into his yard when he turned to see one glaring at him from an eye-level ledge inches away. So, to see one of those things busting out of the night in a scuttling, hairy, spider-y kind of way is alarming, to say the least, and they were out in force that night, attracted by the bonfire from which I risked burns in order to be close enough to see them coming. Leaving the safety of the fire was hard on the nerves; we were able to track several girls' progress to and from the pit latrine by their shrieks whenever a scorpion charged them or when the guy with them for protection would yell "look out!" and point to an empty patch of earth at the girls' feet.

The next morning we packed up our tents and backpacks, said goodbye to the village, hopped in the back of a pickup truck and roared our way over potholes and bumps into Choma. From there everyone scattered, either to Lusaka or Livingstone or back to their villages. I was exhausted but satisfied: dancing with mayos, eating goat testicles, avoiding wind scorpions--there's really not much else I could have asked for.

I hope you are all well. All the best, Josh

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